Grass-free and Deed-Restricted: An Impossible Dream?
|An impossible dream in an HOA-controlled community? Pam Brown's front yard In Pinellas County.|
I hear it all the time. Folks who live in deed-restricted communities tell me they can’t remove even a blade of grass from their front yard for fear of recrimination from their evil HOAs.
But is this really the case? Probably not. I think acceptance of “non-traditional” landscapes depends largely on how you deliver your pitch, and the effort you put into making your case for an alternative to the typical turfgrass-dominated yard with a couple of scraggly palm trees and a neatly manicured hedge of shrubs along the front of the house.
State laws enacted in recent years make it clear that HOAs cannot prevent homeowners from implementing Florida-Friendly landscapes. Many homeowner associations may not be aware of this (especially if no one has bothered to inform them about it), and still more are unclear about what a “Florida Yard” looks like. They fear, understandably, a profusion of neglected yards filled with weeds, ugly bare patches or gravel. I don’t blame them for that. Neglected, unmaintained yards are not Florida Yards. They are just neglected, unmaintained yards.
I believe concern for aesthetics is what drives much of the resistance to alternative landscapes. After all, this is why there are deed restrictions in the first place – to protect the overall appearance and property values of the neighborhood.
So, how does a homeowner who lives in a deed-restricted community but wants to transition to a more water-saving, sustainable landscape – even one that features, GASP, native plants -- open a positive and civil dialogue with their HOA Board? Here are a few tips:
1. Read your HOA documents! Many residents automatically assume their deed restrictions say they must have only grass, and St. Augustine grass at that. That is rarely the case. Yours may specify that the front yard must be “grassed” or “vegetated” but I don’t know of any that mandate ALL grass, or even that a majority of the landscape must be turfgrass. Knowing the specific rules in your community is the first step; this is your responsibility.
2. Understand your limitations and work within them. If you choose to live in a deed-restricted community, then you have agreed to abide by the restrictions required of residents. This doesn’t mean you can’t create a beautiful, Florida-appropriate landscape, but it may well mean you can’t put a vegetable garden in your front yard, or have a landscape composed primarily of mulch, or stick a rain barrel by your front door. Although state law allows Florida-friendly landscapes even in HOAs, the HOA itself still has the right to impose aesthetic standards that are consistent with the community norms.
3. Follow the process. Send a formal letter to your HOA Board asking to present your landscaping request at an upcoming meeting. Don’t know what to say? Find a sample letter, and other great resources, in the “Homeowners Toolkit” on the Be Floridian website at www.BeFloridian.org
4. Get A Plan! Go to your HOA meeting with a landscape plan in hand. People fear what they don’t know, and pictures truly are worth a thousand words. Sketch out your proposed landscape changes (a butterfly garden area, for example, or a curvy bed of shrubs and groundcovers). You don’t need to be a professional landscape designer; a rough drawing as much to scale as possible will do. Cut out photos of the plants you want to use and stick them on the plan, or gather photos of how those plants are used in other residential landscapes. Face it -- if you didn’t know how pretty tickseed is, would you want it in your neighborhood just based on its name? Ditto for any plant with the word “weed” in it – butterfly weed, milkweed, rosinweed, ironweed. Your HOA board members may not know much about plants in general, and less about native plants. Show and explain to them what you want to do and how it will maintain or enhance the overall beauty of your neighborhood.
5. Last but by no means least, be patient. Don’t go in with guns blazing, looking for a fight. Your HOA board is composed of your neighbors, who are volunteering their time on behalf of the entire community. Give them time to respond. Consider starting out with small landscape changes, rather than asking for a wholesale makeover right away. That is what my friend and colleague Pam Brown did in her deed-restricted community in North Pinellas County. Over time, Pam obtained approval for more changes as her HOA became more comfortable with her evolving landscape. Now she has a completely grass-free front yard and I don’t think anyone would be unhappy living next to her house!
Watch this short video with Pam discussing how to work with Homeowner Associations to implement Florida-Friendly landscapes. Most of the tips I’ve provided here came from Pam, a retired University of Florida/IFAS Horticulture Extension Agent who now helps others work with HOAs as a Gardening Coach.
|Pam Brown's yard showing the sunshine mimosa, beautyberries, and coontie.|
|Pam Brown's yard. Wouldn't you love to rest a spell on her bamboo bench?|
(editor's note: Thanks Nanette! Great advice.)